After the Fact: Smarty pants


My mom was somewhere barely short of brilliant: she had the answers to all of my questions and she read stories to me every night before I fell asleep. I can’t remember a time when my mom didn’t read to me up to the time when I learned to “do it myself.” From that point on, she knew progressively less and less. By the time I reached high school, mom knew absolutely nothing.

The amazing part of all this is, between my high school graduation and somewhere into college, mom got smart all over again! And when I became a mother myself, she was better than Einstein! Almost all moms go through this cycle: dads just don’t start out at the same level of intelligence and they seem never to go up or down. Grandfathers are the exception to this rule: they’re smart from the get-go.

Photographic memory is, according to “experts,” a cultural fiction yet there seems to be no explanation for why some people “remember” huge amounts of information easily. And those with unlimited memory cells still need sticky notes to remind them of appointments or lists to take to the grocery store (or, in my case, to leave on the table at home). My grandfather had, to all intents and purposes, a photographic memory. It was what made him a better-than-many newspaper reporter. And it sure helped my sister and me with homework assignments. Grandpa had read every volume of our World Book Encyclopedia for something to do when he ran out of library books. He’d say, “Oh, look on page 322 of volume U-V” if one of us was working on a paper about Pancho Villa. Sure enough.

If the ability to remember is not genetic, then we probably learned by “osmosis.” I am equally adept at remembering names and faces but not always at the same time. And I can recall which page in a book, magazine or paper something appeared on, about how far down on that page and any pictures that went with it. This made taking tests for anything a whole lot easier: it also helped that our schools were great believers in administering tests for everything from spelling to spitting. Kids from my home town are possibly among the very few who think test-taking is fun.

Education is not a sure-fire way to knowing it all. Some of the more intelligent people I’ve known did not have a college education but a large number of those with a multitude of letters following their name are dumber than a bag of rocks.

After a fashion, I grew up in a “company town” where there was only one major intersection between residential areas and the “company.” Traffic would flow “to” at 8 a.m., “from” at noon, “to” again at 1 p.m. and “from” promptly at 5 p.m. with the traffic light coordinating all. One well-known plasma physicist (lots of letters after that name!) stopped his truck-with-camper at the first “to” red light. When it changed to green, the truck surged forward. The camper came to rest in the middle of the intersection. As he had other things on his mind, our physicist drove on, considering that he could pick it up on the way “from” when he went home for lunch. It took several police officers an hour or so, amid blaring horns and much gesturing by waiting motorists, to move the camper into a nearby parking lot to allow traffic to move along. They helped our physicist to put the camper back on the truck when he returned. They also explained the necessity for using appropriate tie-downs to keep camper and truck together. That’s something they don’t teach in college, apparently.

So, when I’ve done something particularly stupid despite my college degrees, I think about Dr. Tuck and consider that I’m in pretty good company after all. And know I’m not nearly as smart as I think I am most of the time.